Classics Circuit Review: Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

The Classics Circuit’s Anthony Trollope tour is in full swing.  It began Monday, December 6 and will end Friday, December 17.  The button comes from the frontspiece of the first publication of The Last Chronicle of Barset (published 1867).  Anthony Trollope was born in London in 1815. When he died in 1882, he’d written 70 major works, including novels, stories, sketches, essays, and travelogues.

Here’s my review of Barchester Towers, followed by some more comments on the tour.

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I’d never read Trollope before, and chose to read Barchester Towers for this blog tour.  First, because it was a familiar title.  It’s part of The Chronicles of Barsetshire, one of Trollope’s best-known series.  And second, because I had a copy on my shelves that has gathered dust for something like 20 years.  I thought it was high time I read it!

And … I made it through 140 pages of this 533-page tome before throwing in the towel.

I typically enjoy classic English literature, and the storyline was promising.  When a bishop dies, his son expects to be appointed successor, but another man is chosen.  This causes a bit of controversy, and the new bishop stirs things up by actually expecting clergy to work.  Trollope’s tongue is firmly lodged in his cheek as he paints vivid character portraits, such as this description of the new bishop and his wife:

It is not my intention to breathe a word against the character of Mrs. Proudie, but still I cannot think that with all her virtues she ads much to her husband’s happiness. The truth is that in matters domestic she rules supreme over her titular lord, and rules with a rod of iron. Nor is this all. Things domestic Dr. Proudie might have abandoned to her, if not voluntarily, yet willingly. But Mrs. Proudie is not satisfied with such home dominion, and stretches her power over all his movements, and will not even abstain from things spiritual. In fact, the bishop is henpecked.  (p.23)

But the humor was not enough to compensate for the glacial pace.  In 140 pages a new bishop was appointed, and the bishop and his wife had a party.  In between these epic events, various characters were introduced.  Trollope spent 11 pages describing five members of a notable family in exhaustive detail.  The bishop’s party received similar treatment, except that took twice as long.  I just lost patience with it.

At first I was disappointed in myself for giving up, for not appreciating the detail and use of language.  Then I thought about Charles Dickens, a contemporary of Trollope.  I don’t particularly like reading Dickens either, but I adored dramatizations like Bleak House (2005), and Little Dorrit (2008).  These films brought Dickens’ world to life in a way the books never did.  As I was struggling with Trollope, a bookish friend recommended the 1982 BBC production of Barchester Chronicles.  If nothing else, I think I’ve learned that the best way for me to experience Victorian literature is through film.

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Despite trying very hard to get past it, there was another aspect of Trollope’s writing that put me off.  As LifetimeReader said, “Trollope reflects many of the assumptions and prejudices of his time.  Sometimes his portrayals of gender or race can be kind of off-putting.” And Falaise was even more direct: “Let’s make no bones about this.  Trollope is a racist and he’s not afraid to show it.  Not for him the subtle sneer or the coded comment.  No, sir.”

I couldn’t agree more.  One of the characters in Barchester Towers dabbled in Judaism (as if that even makes sense), giving Trollope a forum for overt racist comments about Jews as “dirty” people.  It was unbelievably offensive, and even though I know it’s unfair to hold Trollope to today’s standards it was a complete turn-off.

But who knows, maybe I’m alone in my views on this book.  I’m looking forward to visiting these blogs for more thoughts on Barchester Towers, and I hope you’ll join me!

To learn more about Trollope’s entire body of work, check out all the tour stops.

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The Sunday Salon & Classics Circuit Review: A Shilling for Candles, by Josephine Tey

Welcome to The Sunday Salon, and The Golden Age of Detective Fiction blog tour.  The Golden Age of Detective Fiction refers to the 1920s and 1930s, when the genre flourished, producing many famous writers:  Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler … and today’s guest, the British author Josephine Tey.

Born Elizabeth Mackintosh in 1896, she grew up in Inverness and Birmingham, became a teacher, and turned to writing when she quit teaching to care for her father.  She wrote under two pseudonyms:  Josephine Tey and Gordon Daviot.  In several of Tey’s novels, the hero is a Scotland Yard inspector by the name of Alan Grant. Two of Tey’s novels have already been reviewed on this tour:

I read A Shilling for Candles, an Alan Grant mystery published in 1936.  I will confess up front that I don’t read a lot of mysteries.  Many of the popular, modern mystery writers seem formulaic after reading more than one of their books.  But when this tour was announced, I jumped on it as an opportunity to discover another new-to-me woman author.  So, let me tell you a bit more about the book …

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Early one morning, the body of actress Christine Clay is found on the beach.  While it initially appeared to be a drowning, after further investigation the local constabulary chose to call in Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard.  Grant initially suspected Robert Tisdall, a young man who shared a cottage with Miss Clay at the time of her death.  But as he learned more about Clay’s life and career, several potential suspects emerged.

What follows is a bit of a romp across southern England as Grant delves into the case and strives to learn more about each suspect.  If I were giving Grant a performance review, I’d tell him to dig a little deeper and not be taken in by red herrings, like the shady character with a criminal past.  Come on, anyone who has read at least one mystery knows that guy’s not the murderer!  But Grant pursued several obvious leads right into investigative cul-de-sacs, only to emerge and tear down another route.  When the murderer was finally identified, I could almost hear Grant smack his forehead in astonishment.  Though I hadn’t figured it out myself, I should have.  If Grant had only looked for the “slightly less obvious,” he would have cracked this case in no time.

What this novel lacked in suspense, it made up for in fun.  Grant is a sympathetic character, and Tey fills this story with a myriad of others who are endearing or comical.  This book was a great escape and a welcome break between more “serious” reads.

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Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

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Classics Circuit Review: Thérèse Raquin, by Émile Zola

Bienvenue á Paris!

Welcome to Paris in the Springtime, on The Classics Circuit!  Émile Zola is our featured author.  Several of us are reading Thérèse Raquin, Zola’s first major work.  Wikipedia describes this book as the tragic story of a young unhappily married woman and her ill-fated affair.  Published in 1867, Zola’s goal was to “study temperaments and not characters”, and he did so with a very detached, scientific approach.  I thought this book would be a good introduction to Zola.  I guess a lot of others did, too, because there are eight people reviewing Thérèse Raquin for this tour.  This is review #5 and while I have linked to previous reviews below, I was careful not to read any of them until I’d finished the book and formed my own opinions.

Thérèse Raquin was pretty well-received by Classics Circuit participants.  I’ll say more about that after my review.

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In the preface to Thérèse Raquin, Émile Zola wrote,

In a word, I wanted only one thing: given a powerful man and a dissatisfied woman, to search out the beast in them, and nothing but the beast, plunge them into a violent drama and meticulously note the feelings and actions of those two beings.  I have merely performed on two living bodies the analytical work that surgeons carry out on dead ones. (p 4)

The book was written in 1867, when psychology and behavioral studies focused largely on the idea of  “temperament.”   Zola chose to examine how two individuals of different temperament would respond to a set of circumstances.  Enter Thérèse, a young woman abandoned by her natural father, raised by her aunt (Madame Raquin), and married to her sickly cousin Camille.  She worked as an assistant in her aunt’s Paris haberdashery, and helped care for Camille.  Life was dull, even stifling.  Camille worked in a railway company office, and soon established a regular Thursday evening dinner with colleagues at his home.  One of the guests, Laurent, was young and virile, and Thérèse was instantly attracted to him.  The feeling was mutual, and they quickly found themselves entangled in a passionate affair.

From this point Zola explored what two people of such temperaments might do to satisfy their desires.  As Thérèse & Laurent’s passions escalated, their actions became more rash, culminating in an unthinkable act.  Zola meticulously dissected the couple’s thoughts and actions, and the impact of the act on their relationship.  Things turned quite dark at this point; the claustrophobia and fear were palpable.  There was never any doubt in my mind how the story would end, and yet there was still an element of suspense.

Zola’s writing style is detached and analytical — like a news reporter or scientist, reporting the facts without judgment — but he also brought 1860s Paris to life, with settings modeled on popular paintings of the day.  Despite the detached style, Thérèse Raquin was an excellent character study.  I actually found Madame Raquin’s character most intriguing.  She’s somewhat of a passive bystander, and yet as the situation escalates her passivity takes on a level of importance that I did not anticipate.   This book was so well-written that I was quickly hooked.

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Four other reviews of Thérèse Raquin have been published so far:

I was a little worried that Classics Circuit readers would tire of hearing about dear Thérèse.  But each of these reviews addresses different aspects of the book.  Some are more focused on plot, and others on style.  Taken as a whole, readers gain a comprehensive understanding of this work.  It was almost like being in a book group, sharing so many different perspectives.  And surprisingly, everyone liked this book!  Bibliolatry wrote, “I was shocked by how graphic and disturbing this short novel was” — a sentiment expressed in different ways by each reviewer.  We liked the suspense, the intrigue, and even the unusual “Naturalist” style so characteristic of Zola’s writing.

But wait!  There’s more!  Thérèse will make three more appearances during this tour:  

I’m curious to see whether their opinions will be markedly different from those expressed so far.  But even if they aren’t, I’m sure each blogger will bring their own unique point of view, and I am looking forward to reading their thoughts.

To learn about Zola’s entire body of work, check out all of the tour stops.  À bientôt!
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Classics Circuit Review: These Old Shades, by Georgette Heyer

Today I’m pleased to welcome Georgette Heyer to Musings, as part of her Grand Tour on The Classics Circuit.  This is my first experience with Heyer, and I’ve enjoyed reading all the reviews and commentary posted during the past two weeks.  Because my February reading was kind of heavy and not all that great, I actually began reading my choice on the first of March.  I zipped through the first third of the novel, using it as a break before reading another rather somber work.  And when I returned to finish These Old Shades, I found it a quite amusing diversion from my typical fare.

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Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon, is a rake if there ever was one.  Men fear him; respectable women will have nothing to do with him.  He spends most of his time in the gambling houses of Paris, leaving his sister Fanny in charge of his English estate.  One night he encounters a young boy on the run from his employer, and makes an impulsive decision to buy the boy to serve as his page.  Avon had a hunch he could use Léon to his advantage.  Léon is grateful, and completely unaware of any ulterior motives.  Avon’s friends are mystified by this sudden turn of events.  Avon remains secretive, but gradually the reader is let in on the details.

Léon is, in fact, Léonie:  a girl.  And Léonie is the daughter of Avon’s greatest enemy.  Set in France during the reign of Louis XV, the story is filled with rich detail of the period’s “Polite Society.” Avon’s first task was to train Léonie in the role and manners of a young lady.  Even as Avon set these wheels in motion, he was also plotting revenge against his enemy. What follows is an amusing romp through the English and French countryside, filled with rich imagery and intrigue.

However, Avon didn’t expect the affectionate feelings that developed between him and Léonie.  He suppressed these feelings, because he was so much older than she, and was unaccustomed to caring for another person.  Heyer surrounded Léonie with so many eligible bachelors, keeping the reader guessing almost to the end.  In some ways, this story was predictable:  justice was dealt to the bad guys, and at least a couple of people lived happily ever after.  But somehow the predictability didn’t matter to me.  I just sat back and enjoyed the ride.

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Classics Circuit Review: The Ways of White Folks, by Langston Hughes

Welcome to The Classics Circuit Harlem Renaissance Tour!

One summer evening a few years ago, my family and I visited our local Dairy Queen.  We ordered ice cream and took our seats at a table.  On the other side of the restaurant, a group of students sat clustered around a few tables, in animated conversation with someone who appeared to be a visiting professor or lecturer.  As we enjoyed our ice cream, we noticed that every other customer who came into the DQ placed their order, and then left to enjoy their treats.  This seemed odd.  There’s no outdoor seating, nor is the scenery particularly fine.  And there’s a drive-through window for those who don’t intend to hang around.  Then my husband and I noticed something:  the customers taking their food outside were all white; the group of students were all black.  Could it be that people felt so uncomfortable in the presence of this group? We were shocked and disappointed in our “neighbors.”

Langston Hughes while attending Lincoln University (source: Wikipedia)

The students were from Lincoln University, “the first institution found anywhere in the world to provide a higher education in the arts and sciences for male youth of African descent” (Education for Freedom, by Horace Mann Bond, 1976).   Today I’m featuring poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967), who came to Lincoln after a period of time abroad, and  graduated in 1929.  Hughes was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, using the written word to celebrate and raise awareness of working class black people.  He is best known for his poetry; one of my favorites is:

I, Too, Sing America

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–

I, too, am America.

For the Harlem Renaissance Tour, I chose a short story collection by Hughes.  My review follows.

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The ways of white folks, I mean some white folks, is too much for me. I reckon they must be a few good ones, but most of ’em ain’t good — leastwise they don’t treat me good. And Lawd knows, I ain’t never done nothin’ to ’em, nothin’ a-tall.” (From Berry, p. 181)

This slim volume of fourteen stories explores the myriad of ways in which white people in America demonstrate prejudice against blacks.  Published in 1933, most of the stories take place in that time period, and are set in either New York City or the rural South.  In some the racism is overt and violent (think lynchings), but prejudice can be subtle as well.  Take, for example, the maid whose family keeps her waiting on Christmas Eve and then is unable to pay her full wages, never thinking of the impact this has on the maid and her young son.  Or the single woman living alone, who is so confused and conflicted by her feelings for the black janitor in her apartment building, that she is compelled to move.

There were no happy endings here.  Even the stories that satirize whites made me squirm more than smile.  In fact, I was able to read no more than 3 stories in a single sitting, and was glad I had other reading material close at hand.  Hughes writes well; the intensity was just hard to take.  And after a while, it even began to feel a bit repetitious.  The situations and characters were different, but the behaviors and outcomes were similar:  black characters were subservient, whites were either oblivious or overtly racist, and things always ended badly.  Readers may want to choose just a few stories to get the essence of this work; in fact, the first three are representative:

  • Cora Unashamed: a woman who has worked for a white family all her life.  She is treated somewhat respectfully, until she begins to speak out about a family member’s pregnancy.
  • Slave on a Block: profiles a white couple who “went in for Negroes … a race that was already too charming and naïve and lovely for words.”  This story was the most squirm-inducing for me.
  • Home:  a young violinist returns to Missouri after several years in Europe, and encounters prejudice he had not experienced abroad.  The ending is intense and difficult.

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Classics Circuit Review: The Reef, by Edith Wharton

Hello!  Thanks for stopping by; I have a special treat for you today.  Allow me to introduce you to Edith.  Yes, Edith Wharton.  She just dropped in as part of her whirlwind blog tour with The Classics Circuit. In fact, this amazing woman can manage being in two places at once — she’s also with Eva at A Striped Armchair today!

Last May I had the pleasure of visiting The Mount, Edith Wharton’s estate in Massachusetts.  I went with a group of friends, and we had a marvelous time.  Unlike other estate properties, The Mount is a “work in progress” — many of the rooms are restored, but unfurnished.  Wharton herself was the mastermind behind the house and gardens (she co-authored The Decoration of Houses in 1897, and was an authority on European landscape design).  She was also a serious animal lover; a quiet spot in the gardens serves as a pet cemetery.  For a photo tour, check out The Mount‘s galleries of the estate and gardens.  If you ever find yourself in the Berkshires, I highly recommend a tour of The Mount !

So anyway.  Edith and I have been chatting about books, architecture, gardening, and dogs.  It turns out she doesn’t go anywhere without her dogs.  Luckily

Mitou, Miza, and Nicette

I have some soft pillows for them to sit on.  Maybe later they can run outside and play with my Labrador retrievers, Lily and Woody.

Today I’ll be reviewing Wharton’s novel, The Reef, which takes place primarily at Givré, a French country estate.  A few days ago, Amanda at The Zen Leaf wrote, “Wharton’s prose is nearly as flowery and too-descriptive in this novella as it is in her novels, and that gets really tedious to me. My mind always wanders as she spends pages describing architecture or design or nature.”  The Reef is indeed flowery, but as Wharton described Givré, it seemed she was re-creating The Mount and its gardens in France.  Having been there, I quite enjoyed this aspect of the novel.

And now, without further ado, my review:

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Anna Leath is an American living in France and recently widowed, with an adult stepson (Owen) and a young daughter (Effie).  On a visit to London she meets up with George Darrow, rekindling a romance from many years before.  George agrees to visit Anna at her country house Givré, but just as he is preparing to cross the Channel he receives a terse communication delaying the visit.  He continues on to Paris anyway, befriending a young woman named Sophy and enjoying a couple of weeks in her company.  When he finally visits Anna a few months later, he is surprised to find Sophy employed as Effie’s governess.  Having already professed his love and commitment to Anna, he decides to keep his dalliance with Sophy a secret.

The novel revolves around the fragile nature of trust and intimacy, and social norms that inhibit expression. It’s clear that George adores Anna:

They dined late, and facing her across the table, with its low lights and flowers, he felt an extraordinary pleasure in seeing her again in evening dress, and in letting his eyes dwell on the proud shy set of her head, the way her dark hair clasped it, and the girlish thinness of her neck above the slight swell of her breast. His imagination was struck by the quality of reticence in her beauty. (p.127)

Meanwhile he gave himself up once more to the joy of Anna’s presence. They had not been alone together for two long days, and he had the lover’s sense that he had forgotten, or at least underestimated, the strength of the spell she cast. Once more her eyes and her smile seemed to bound his world. He felt that her light would always move with him as the sunset moves before a ship at sea. (p. 220)

Anna, too, is sure of her feelings, but completely unable to express them, expecting George to pick up on nonverbal cues and initiate all dialogue about their relationship.  Even when Anna learns the truth about George and Sophy — as the reader knows she will — she is completely unable to work it out in an adult fashion.  She wants to give George the benefit of the doubt and initially believes his explanations, but when they are apart, even for a few minutes, doubt sets in.  Anna repeatedly shies away from confrontation, putting off the conversation that must take place for their relationship to continue.

The reader knows Anna is capable of deep feeling and expression:  early in the novel, she shows tremendous excitement when Owen returns from an afternoon away.  It’s frustrating to watch her mis-handle the one relationship that will bring lifelong happiness.  Fortunately, the scenery is idyllic.  Edith Wharton brings France, her adopted country, to life, taking the reader up and down Paris streets, and on long walks through country chateau gardens.  She breaks the emotional tension with well-placed humor.  For example, consider this description of Adelaide Painter, a friend of Anna’s mother-in-law:

After living, as he had, as they all had, for the last few days, in an atmosphere perpetually tremulous with echoes and implications, it was restful and fortifying merely to walk into the big blank area of Miss Painter’s mind, so vacuous for all its accumulated items, so echoless for all its vacuity. (p. 212)

Reading The Reef, it was easy to get frustrated with Anna, waffling over her commitment to George.  And I was fairly sympathetic to George:  he was no saint, but his fling with Sophy occurred before he’d reunited with Anna, and at a point where he thought she had rejected him.  And while I longed for Anna to be stronger and more assertive, her inhibitions were not unfamiliar to me. The Reef is an excellent period piece in its scenery, characterizations, and portrayal of relationships between men and women.

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The Reef will also be reviewed by Athyrium felix-femina (The Lady Fern) on January 17.

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The Classics Circuit: Edith Wharton Tour, January 2010

The Classics Circuit has announced an Edith Wharton blog tour in January, 2010.   I’m pleased to be part of Edith’s itinerary!  She will visit this blog on January 12.

If you’ve come here looking for a sneak preview, please note that I am in the process of migrating my blog from Musings @ Livejournal, and will go live at this, my new home, around January 1.

Best wishes for the holiday season & the new year!